Sex sells, but is that what Tijuana should be selling?

'Flirty Tijuana' campaign is a step in the wrong direction for a city with a dirty reputation.

UPDATE: Since posting this piece the Tijuana city government and Mayor's office has responded to the criticism and denied the mayor was endorsing or even tacitly approving the "Tijuana Coqueta" campaign. The mayor posted on his official Facebook page that "there ISN'T OR WILL BE any campaign that goes against what we are as Tijuana," while the city sent out this statement:

"Mayor Astiazaran's policy has been not to permit the spread of messages through billboards that are a danger to our morals, which is why from the beginning of this administration, advertising with sexual content has been limited on billboards or other public displays, something that will remain that way."

UPDATE 2: Miguel Badiola, the Tijuana tourism director, has also now released a statement saying that the report "interprets wrongly that the TIjuana city government, will launch a media campaign to promote businesses in the 'zona norte' [red-light district]", as well as offering an apology to mayor Astiazarán and the Tijuana community if his statements were "involuntarily" taken out of context.

"There exist no campaign or will there be any that goes against the dignity of Tijuana's society", he adds.

Original story continues below, with changes to reflect the city government's position:

For the first time in history, the Tijuana tourism authority will actively promote its red light district, also known as the "Zona de Tolerancia". This idea comes from the masterminds behind last year's Hollywood Walk of Fame knockoff, which local critics labeled the "Walk of Shame" — a project consisting of embedded star tiles honoring artists with no local ties or interest, B-List narco-novela actors, and generally non brag-worthy artists on Tijuana's Avenida Revolucion.

Tijuana's red light district is said to be the largest red light district in North America, and has thrived for decades on locals and foreigners alike, including underage tourists from the U.S. that can legally drink in Tijuana. Many of the strip clubs and bars which feature topless dancing also operate as brothels and are connected to motels that charge hourly rates. Street prostitution is apparent on Calle Coahuila, which is the main drag in the red light district. While Tijuana's red light district's reputation precedes itself, locals understand that a regulated tolerance zone is a better alternative than pushing this industry underground. It certainly has never been a sector that tourism officials have boasted about, nor should they.

Miguel Angel Badiola, the head of Tijuana's Tourism and Convention Center Committee (COTUCO) and right-hand man of Tijuana's gambling and sports betting tycoon, Jorge Hank Rhon, is the mastermind behind the new Tijuana Coqueta, or "Flirty Tijuana" campaign. When the Walk of Fame was unveiled by Badiola, It became fairly obvious that the project touted as a way to add a tourist attraction to Tijuana's most emblematic street was merely a way to further Hank Rhon's Grupo Caliente business interests. In fact, the sidewalk stars themselves are black and red just like the colors of Hank Rhon's football team, the Xoloscuintles. It is no wonder that the tourism official's actions are now focusing on another industry unworthy of public support — that of strip clubs and prostitution.

What is most surprising is how such a ludicrous idea could have ever left the committee's meeting room, and how it is now being touted as a great idea by public officials, local and foreign alike.

"We have to recognize that sex tourism exists," Tijuana's mayor, Jorge Astiazarán, stuttered in a video posted by Sintesis TV Friday, justifying the Flirty Tijuana campaign. According to Aztiazarán, as long as the campaign is promoted in a respectful manner, "...then, go for it."

According to Miguel Angel Badiola in that same video, the Tijuana Coqueta campaign will be launched in Tijuana, and promoted on both sides of the border "for starters, and then we will spread to the rest of the country."

"We have to start at home first," he said. "It's economic development, right?. So we have to support it, right?"

Other supporters include Baja's tourism secretary Oscar Escobedo, and former San Diego Mayor and acting president of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, Jerry Sanders, who called the campaign "a good promotion," because adult entertainment is popular in San Diego and Tijuana.

Editor's note: Mr. Sander's communication office has reached out to us to state that Mr. Sanders was speaking generally about the promotion of tourism and entertainment in Tijuana, and that he "was in no way talking about the red-light district or promotion of the area."

The fact that such an initiative is garnering support from officials is worrisome to say the least, because it proves that officials are totally out of touch with the efforts of entrepreneurs and creatives on the ground, who are making great strides in taking Tijuana in a different direction.

In Tijuana, public officials operate at the behest of powerful interests without any regard to the constituents that pay for their salaries.

Jennifer Kramer, marketing director for Discover Baja Travel Club, states "Tijuana was just beginning to get past its old reputation, of days when it was a city known for the 'donkey show,' and minors coming down to party and drink."

"Tijuanenses have worked so hard over the past number of years to build Tijuana into a wonderfully cultural city that's becoming recognized for it's incredible restaurants, unique art scene, and craft breweries.There are such creative and positive things coming out of Tijuana right now that it seems like such a shame that this is what's getting promoted," she said. "What an unfortunate step in the wrong direction."

Activists and locals argue that it is irresponsible to promote a local industry that is riddled with human rights abuses including sexual violence, human trafficking, and child sex trafficking. The country also grapples with femicide, which human rights activists claim the government has done almost nothing to address.

This campaign was launched with total disregard of the painstaking effort that many local promoters have made to change Tijuana's image to a destination of non-vice tourism, via the promotion of its local cuisine, craft beer, cultural offerings, and even as a tech-sector destination.

If Tijuana and Baja tourism officials really wanted to promote the region they should continue to make Tijuana a more attractive destination for its own locals, which have long called for better infrastructure including fixing broken sidewalks, installing bike lanes, bike and parking; and creating green spaces and public parks.

Tourists visiting Tijuana often complain that the city is difficult to navigate in addition. Yes, there are many great tourist attractions, but the lack of public infrastructure — the unappealing and at times downright disgusting streets — is, for many, a turn-off.

Day-tripping sex tourists do not drive the local economy. "It's wham, bam, thank you ma'am tourism," one social media user commented.


But of course, this was not a campaign created after careful consideration or planning. The plan is not based on input from all of the stakeholders in the city.

Was this carefully, thoughtfully, creatively, or respectfully crafted?

Or, was this campaign the result of a back-door deal between a couple of public officials and some heavyweight business owners?


Seemingly, this is a publicly funded business transaction — not a campaign. Locals are calling it "a slap in the face."



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